Under the Western Eyes, first published in 1911, is the other remarkable novel written by Conrad dealing with the dark human aspects linked to extreme ideologies. Unfortunately this destructive power continues to be very much alive today.
In The Secret Agent, Conrad describes the “dark heart” of a bureaucrat in great detail. The First Secretary at the French Embassy in London is ready to destroy a landmark building and, if necessary, to kill innocent people in order to force the British to adopt repressive measures against their political dissidents.
In Under the Western Eyes, Conrad chooses a terrorist as another example of the “dark heart”. Haldin, the main character of this extraordinary novel, is a young Russian student who proudly identifies himself as a “destructor”, after killing the hated repressive official Mr. P— and possibly bystanders by throwing a bomb.
Following the successful terrorist act, Haldin hides in the home of Razumov, a lonely student whose acquaintance he made in university. He immediately feels that his future is threatened by Haldin’s ominous presence in his quarters. Haldin says “It was I who removed P— this morning.” trying to make his situation clear, and goes on in a challenging tone: ”Men like me are necessary to make room for self-contained, thinking men like you”, demeaning his colleague, who now becomes an unintentional accomplice. “All I want you to do is to help me to vanish”. With these words Haldin starts to set the stage for a series of events which radically changed Razumov’s life as revealed in his diary “…I, who love my country—who have nothing but that to love and put my faith in—am I to have my future, perhaps my usefulness, ruined by this sanguinary fanatic?”
From here the story unfolds a full range of unexpected developments, showing Conrad’s unique talent as a storyteller with details of the ominous symptoms of the time in pre-revolution Russia. In the story, Conrad uses quotes from a journal that Razumov keeps after his encounter with the terrorist to demonstrate his internal conflicts, family background and the painful awakening path that connects him with extremists and revolutionaries as well as with rich powerful individuals in both Russia and the West.
The plot uses Razumov’s internal tribulations stated in his diary and the interesting conversations taking place in Geneva about the brewing Russian revolution and the incapability of the western world to comprehend it. As this emigre in Geneva explains to her English professor, “You think it is a class conflict, or a conflict of interests, as social contests are with you in Europe. But it is not that at all. It is something quite different”. The professor, who seems to be Conrad’s own mouthpiece, replies to his Russian interlocutor “A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first.” The professor goes further in his negative views on revolutions: “The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.” Clearly here Conrad anticipates with great lucidity the future of the Soviet Revolution five years later. Actually his comments are still valid taking a look at the negative results of the Orange revolution in Ukraine and the Spring revolutions in the Middle East.
Among other characters living in Geneva, Under the Western Eyes also includes an influential Russian writer who advocates radical feminists ideas, and Madame de S—, a rich lady with an aristocratic family background, famous for hosting “soirees” in her chateau with Russians and political conspirators. The character of Madame de S seems to have been inspired by Mme de Staël, the 19th century French political writer, who also lived near Geneva in a chateau and was famous for her “salon” style gatherings, attended by refugees and political thinkers in the Napoleonic era
This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the World War I in which millions lost their lives. That war was triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, three years after Under the Western Eyes was published.
There are remarkable resemblances between the fictional events of this novella and the actual occurrences which bring about historic implications. In Conrad’s novel, Mr. P—, Haldin’s target, survives during the terrorist attack while driven in a two-horse uncovered sleigh with a coachman who gets killed instead whereas in real life Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open-topped car when a terrorist threw two grenades that missed the royal member but wounded the officers badly in the car behind. In both cases, the assassination plot is completed by a second terrorist: in the novel, Haldin throws a bomb that kills the standstill target whereas in history, after the first failed attempt, Princip, the assassin, fired two shots to an almost motionless car killing the Archduke in Sarajevo and resulting in World War I.
These similarities that could be considered premonitions were again repeated 90 years later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, 1963. Moreover, terrorist acts that target buildings as in The Secret Agent (mentioned in Part I of this article) turned into tragic reality on September 11, 2001 with the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, igniting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reading Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent certainly helps readers to better understand what Joseph Conrad meant by “Heart of Darkness” the title of one of his best well-known novels.